Jared M. Diamond became the darling of PBS with his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and his thesis that the secret to economic development could be found in factors like geography and the availability of domesticated animals. Tyler Cowen reviews a book with a different take:
In “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World” (forthcoming, Princeton University Press,) Gregory Clark, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, identifies the quality of labor as the fundamental factor behind economic growth. Poor labor quality discourages capital from flowing into a country, which means that poverty persists. Good institutions never have a chance to develop. … A simple example from Professor Clark shows the importance of labor in economic development. As early as the 19th century, textile factories in the West and in India had essentially the same machinery, and it was not hard to transport the final product. Yet the difference in cultures could be seen on the factory floor. Although Indian labor costs were many times lower, Indian labor was far less efficient at many basic tasks. For instance, when it came to “doffing” (periodically removing spindles of yarn from machines), American workers were often six or more times as productive as their Indian counterparts, according to measures from the early to mid-20th century. Importing Western managers did not in general narrow these gaps. As a result, India failed to attract comparable capital investment. Professor Clark’s argument implies that the current outsourcing trend is a small blip in a larger historical pattern of diverging productivity and living standards across nations. Wealthy countries face the most serious competitive challenges from other wealthy regions, or from nations on the cusp of development, and not from places with the lowest wages. Shortages of quality labor, for instance, are already holding back India in international competition.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.